Arizona education committee passes New Voices legislation

ARIZONA— Student journalists in Arizona could soon see protection from administrative censorship after New Voices legislation was introduced in the state Senate and passed unanimously Thursday by the Senate Education Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, introduced Senate Bill 1384, which grants student journalists at both the college and high-school levels the ability to exercise freedom of the press regardless of whether the publication is sponsored by a school, uses school facilities, or is part of a class.

Journalism students, professors and industry professionals testified in support of the bill, citing the need to blunt the impact of the landmark Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision, which give school administrators the ability to censor content prior to publication.

Sara Windom, style editor for the Cactus Shadows High School newspaper CS Press, testified before the committee and emphasized the importance for high school journalists to be able to publish potentially controversial stories without fear of censorship.

“The idea that writers, editors, photographers and the teachers who supervise them can be punished is appalling,” she said. “Journalism is reporting the facts, and any ethical reporter knows what is and isn’t appropriate for print.”

Yee said the journey toward her sponsorship of the legislation began nearly 25 years ago when she was a news reporter and political cartoonist for both her high school and college newspapers.

“Greenway High School ran into issues of censorship and it raised the attention of our student adviser at the time,” Yee said of her time as a journalist. “We found that censorship was occurring when an article or a cartoon may have shed a bad light in the eyes of the principal on the school. I think that was where there needed to be some understanding of First Amendment rights and freedom of speech.”

As a result, Yee testified in front of the Education Committee in 1992 supporting similar legislation that would have freed students from prior review and administrative censorship. She said the bill had bipartisan support and passed the committee unanimously, but it did not end up becoming law.

“This [current] bill really began 25 years ago, and I hope [it] will continue to expand upon freedom of speech for our budding journalists,” she said.

The bill includes a provision that each school district governing board and charter school governing board in the state should draft written content guidelines for school-sponsored media. The guidelines, however, cannot be restrictive beyond content that is libelous, invades personal privacy, or “materially and substantially” disrupts school operations.

Yee said the language was necessary because locally elected governing boards in Arizona determines how individual schools in each district are run. She added that the language was included so that the bill could move forward without opposition.

“I learned from that experience [in 1992] and worked with the opposition [this time around] to see where they’d be with this,” she said. “They welcomed that opportunity and I think they’ll work with it rather than against it.”

Yee said the bill will now move on to Senate Republican and Democrat caucuses on Tuesday, and shortly thereafter, the Senate committee as a whole would vote on the bill. The earliest a vote could come on the bill would be next Thursday, Yee said, but there is no specific timeline at this point.

SPLC staff writer Conner Mitchell can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318

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